Commodification of American Cities

In The Travel Habit, WPA guidebooks by Melanie1 Comment

In the article “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” Andrew Gross addresses some of the inherent issues with the writing of the WPA guidebooks as they relate to tourism in America. In the article, Gross explains that the purpose of these guidebooks was to bring about consumer spending, which could potentially boost the economy during times of extreme hardship. The way in which these guidebooks did so, was through the commodification of towns and cities across the United States. According to Gross, these books “transform local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty.” The United States Tourism Board managed to essentially assign a monetized value to these towns and its inhabitants. While reading about it, it reminded me of the passage we read in Nathaniel West’s “A Cool Million,” about the different regionally themed rooms in the Chinese man’s brothel.

In the article, the author briefly touches upon this tension in the guidebooks between national identity and regional identity. The guidebooks had to make people interested in the United States as a whole, but also had to promote different cities and towns individually. This is a very hard thing to do because by advocating for a strong regional identity, through the lengthy descriptions of these towns, they are sort of erasing that national identity that would make people explore the United States to begin with. The writers of the guidebooks truly had a difficult task on their hands.

There is also another main tension I noticed with the writing of these guidebooks: between authenticity and the standardization of traveling accommodations that made travel possible, to begin with. In order to establish a way for people to travel across the US and visit other towns and cities, the travel industry established roads, gas stations, hotels, etc. Without all of these standardizations being brought to cities across the U.S., it is possible that many people may have never left the comfort of their own homes, not knowing what to expect as they traveled across the country. But in that process, the authenticity of each of these cities, with their quaint little homes, or mom and pop shops instead of McDonald’s is lost. The lines between each of the regions are blurred into a homogenized America.

The WPA guidebook I chose to explore was “New Jersey, a guide to its present and past.” Upon reading the guidebook, I was struck by two main realizations. First and foremost, the political views of the writers are more in-your-face than I thought they would be. I was aware of the origins of these WPA guidebooks, but I definitely did not expect them to be so politicized within the text. At every turn, the writers manage to insert commentary about political parties, and capitalism, even if at times it feels as though it does not fit. Second, some of the recommendations for the tours of NJ are things you can do everywhere else in the U.S. Some of the recommended attractions include drive-in movie theaters and golf courses. This brings me back to my original point about the homogenization of America due to standardization. Each of these cities does have some unique qualities, but some of those lines across cities are inherently blurred.


  1. Personally, I thought the idea of New Jersey tourism struck me as funny in by itself, however you bring up a more interesting point. Before we connected these cities with roads and roadside conveniences, the lines began to blur from neighbor to neighbor as American towns began to compare themselves and even have people commute between cities for work and living. These WPA books are heavily politicized, which I agree seemed strange, but they definitely reflected this commodification of America. This idea of selling the American dream to poor unbeknownst souls. The American dream as the ultimate scam, it’s disgusting, but that’s how these tourism books were written. The consequences of which, both good and bad, ironically stood to “weaken” American uniqueness and most likely its domestic tourism until the later half of the 1900s.

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